When a director like Samuel Fuller finally gets the chance to make his passion project, rest assured, there’s going to be more than a little of the man himself in the movie. With Fuller, this would have undoubtedly been the case no matter what type of film it was, but when the film is an autobiographical World War II yarn about the first infantry division — the “fighting first” — the filmmaker’s stamp is evident from start to finish. The Big Red One is an episodic chronicle of this military assembly, here focused on The Sergeant (Lee Marvin, adding classic film respectability), and the “four horsemen,” Pvt. Griff (Mark Hamill, adding contemporary film marketability), Pvt. Zab (Robert Carradine), Pvt. Vinci (Bobby Di Cicco), and Pvt. Johnson (Kelly Ward). The men who make up the four horsemen, a label that emphasized the bonding of the four leads on and off screen, are all varying incantations of Fuller himself, most notably the cigar-chomping narrator and crime novelist, Zab. The Sergeant, or more specifically Marvin, also had a strong connection to Fuller, as the actor likewise served in WWII.
The film follows the rifle squad on their campaigns to North Africa, Sicily, Omaha Beach, Belgium, and France. Along the way, scenarios play out against several terrific set pieces, with intermittent obstacles testing the men and their morale, ethics, and humanity. Being a Sam Fuller movie, there’s also considerable humor, usually on the dark side and occasionally crude; there’s shrewd banter; and there’s frequent economically inventive camera work. And as this is a story Fuller lived, we feel we’re in authoritative good hands as we ardently observe the mechanics of this unit working together.
Now, while the film has many merits, the new Blu-ray of the film should be met with some ire. As with the DVD version of the reconstructed release, the bonus features, carried over here, are great: a commentary with reconstruction producer Richard Schickel; his documentary, The Men Who Made the Movies: Sam Fuller; another documentary, The Real Glory: Reconstructing The Big Red One; The Fighting First: A War Department Film, which lends credence to Fuller’s historical accuracy; deleted and alternate scenes; and more. Plenty of valuable information and footage for the Fuller enthusiast. However, and it’s a big however, Warner Brothers’ high-definition transfer of the film is inexplicably for the truncated theatrical version only. The 162-minute reconstruction — the only version to see — is in standard definition. Essentially, notwithstanding those who would for some reason want to watch the theatrical cut of The Big Red One, there is nothing here that wasn’t already on the DVD.
That said, one way or another, The Big Red One is a film that should be watched. “This is a fictional life based on factual death,” says a title before the film starts, and due in no small part to Fuller’s first-hand knowledge and experience, one of the key assets of this film is its sense of authenticity, even despite budgetary constraints. More than anything (rather than, say, an allegiance to graphic, realistic violence), this accuracy comes across in the inclusion of small yet significant details and intensely reflective themes. Details like putting condoms on rifle barrels to keep them dry, swapping cigarettes for ears, and flashing close-ups of a wristwatch on the arm of a dead man, showing the slow, relentless passing of time. And themes like struggling with the morality of killing someone in wartime, of war-weary disillusionment (even on the German side), and of what to do when coming face to face with a defenseless enemy who you know would kill you if he could.
There’s also the repeated notion of war’s arbitrary designations. The Sergeant is haunted by his actions in World War I, when he unknowingly killed a German hours after the armistice had been signed. In just a matter of minutes, a sworn enemy becomes simply another man. It’s as problematic as the differentiation between “murdering” someone and “killing” someone, a discrepancy that plagues the soldiers now in this war. And how does one handle the replacements who continually show up? It’s almost inevitable that they’re going to die (at least as far as this film is concerned). With so many coming and going, are they really worth getting to know? Then there are the children. Some are innocent enough, yes, but what of the ones trying to shoot you? How should they be treated? While The Big Red One avoids standard narrative conventions, insofar as a customary three-act beginning, middle, and end, its focus on these thematic concerns is exceptional.
Each of the four young soldiers have traits that flesh out their personalities, fears, anxieties, and so on, but it’s the Sergeant who emerges as the most complex and thoughtfully written character. Marvin is excellent as a man, in Fuller’s words, “who represents death.” One minute, he can innocently don a helmet festooned with flowers, courtesy of a little girl; the next minute he can reach up and choke a German doctor, even as he’s lying wounded in bed. He’s also an expert military strategist. It’s he who makes the desperate decision that results in one of the film’s standout sequences. Stuck in the Kasserine Pass with German tanks approaching, the Sergeant instructs the men to dig in. And they literally do, actually digging narrow holes in the ground to hide in as tanks roll over their heads (Fuller’s company really did this).
Of course, The Big Red One also wouldn’t be a Sam Fuller movie without tough guy one-liners and words of snappy philosophical musing (as well as a character named Griff). Standing in front of a World War I memorial, Johnson marvels at how fast they put the dead men’s names up. It’s from the previous war, corrects the Sergeant. “But the names are the same,” states Johnson. “They always are,” says the Sergeant. During another scene, Zab sardonically remarks, “You know how you smoke out a sniper? You send a guy out in the open and you see if he gets shot. They thought that one up at West Point.”
After this picture, just a few more films lay ahead for Sam Fuller (the extremely controversial White Dog in 1982 among them), but he mostly spent the rest of his life writing and receiving belated and much deserved recognition from international festivals and famous fans like Quentin Tarantino, Tim Robbins, Martin Scorsese and others. His reputation and notoriety grew, and his films received a serious reevaluation and newfound appreciation. Now, Fuller stands as one of the most unique, daring, and accomplished of American filmmakers, and The Big Red One might just be his magnum opus.
— Jeremy Carr